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Herseth Sandlin Faces Best GOP Opponent Yet

Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to knock off South Dakota Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin ever since she was elected six years ago in the rural, conservative state.

But with what could be a big Republican wave and an anti-incumbent narrative building — not to mention a strong GOP nominee in state Rep. Kristi Noem — party operatives believe they have the right mix of factors to beat the Congresswoman this year.

Democrats, meanwhile, are already trying to paint Noem — an anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-gay-marriage conservative — as a right-wing partisan.

They also note that Herseth Sandlin survived a tough environment before, winning her first race in 2004, a very good Republican year.

But that was before she had a Congressional voting record and before she owned the positive and negative aspects that come with incumbency.

South Dakota Republican Party Executive Director Lucas Lentsch compared Noem’s candidacy to that of Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who unseated then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004.

“There are folks that are saying Kristi Noem has the makings of a John Thune campaign,” Lentsch said. “She’s electrified voters across South Dakota.”

Lentsch’s enthusiasm comes after years of the GOP failing to find a strong challenger to Herseth Sandlin.

Noem was named to the highest level of the NRCC’s “Young Gun” program on Wednesday. The race also signifies the first time in state history that two women will battle for a seat in Congress.

“Kristi Noem is everything that Stephanie Herseth claims to be but isn’t,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tom Erickson said. “There’s a lot of anger at Washington over the national debt and spending and Stephanie Herseth has been a part of that.”

In particular, Noem’s campaign is pointing to Herseth Sandlin’s votes in favor of the stimulus package and more recently to raise the country’s debt limit.

“South Dakotans are frustrated with politicians in Washington spending like there is no tomorrow,” Noem campaign manager Joshua Shields said.

Herseth Sandlin’s camp defends the stimulus vote as an important step in helping stabilize the economy.

“Kristi Noem condemns federal spending, yet every year she has been in the Statehouse she has happily relied on federal assistance to balance the state’s budget,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Gabby Adler said. “Kristi Noem’s double talk is not the type of leadership voters are looking for — this is just outright hypocrisy from a state legislator whose record shows she cares more about politics than South Dakota.”

The Congresswoman has hardly been known as a reliable vote for Democrats.

Herseth Sandlin supporters note that she has carefully carved out a niche as a moderate, fiscally conservative Democrat, breaking with her party on important votes such as health care reform, cap-and-trade and the financial and auto industry bailouts.

“Stephanie is South Dakota’s independent voice in Congress, and she looks forward to talking to voters about her bipartisan work on behalf of our state’s priorities,” campaign spokeswoman Betsy Hart said in an e-mailed statement. “She has a strong record of putting our state’s interests first … working to promote biofuels and wind energy, or to ensure our veterans have the benefits they deserve — Stephanie makes her decisions based on what’s best for South Dakota.”

Still, Herseth Sandlin is having to campaign with her Washington experience in mind. In her first campaign eight years ago against former Gov. Bill Janklow (R), Republicans attacked her as a carpetbagger. She lost that race but came back to win a June 2004 special election. Now she is facing criticism that she’s gone Washington — that she’s moved her family to the nation’s capital and is married to a lobbyist, former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas).

Her campaign isn’t running away from her Congressional record, according to media consultant Steve Murphy.

“We’re very confident that Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is going to win this election, but in an environment like this we expect a tough race,” Murphy said. “She hasn’t lost touch with [voters]. That is the danger in a Republican conservative jurisdiction this year.”

Noem, Assistant Majority Leader in the state House of Representatives, isn’t an unknown quantity in South Dakota.

She has a history of grass-roots involvement, working as an activist in the Vote Yes for Life campaign that successfully campaigned for the state Legislature to outlaw abortion in 2006. Voters overturned the law later that year.

One poll, taken two days following the June 8 primary, showed the race should be highly competitive. Noem received 53 percent to Herseth Sandlin’s 41 percent in the Rasmussen Reports telephone survey.

But Herseth Sandlin certainly has an edge in the money race. She has raised more than $820,000 this cycle and had nearly $452,000 on hand as of May 19, according to Federal Election Commission records. Noem raised about $244,000 after entering the race in February. She had about $43,000 on hand with debts of $48,000 as of mid-May.

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